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AHC Gamechangers: Alex Fok

Alex Fok, Ph.D., is the Director of the Minnesota Dental Research Center for Biomaterials and Biomechanics in the School of Dentistry

It’s not every day a dental school hires a nuclear engineer to direct its research center, but that’s just what the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry did in 2007.

Alex Fok, Ph.D. has a vision to apply engineering principles to the design and assessment of dental restorations, which sets him apart in the health sciences. Fok completed his undergrad and Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Manchester, UK.    He worked four years as a nuclear engineer, then joined the faculty of the University of Manchester’s  School of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering where he worked on stress analysis of the fuel core components of graphite-moderated nuclear reactors.

In 2007, he became Director of the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry’s Minnesota Dental Research Center for Biomaterials and Biomechanics (MDRCBB), sharing his depth of expertise ranging from mechanical engineering to biomechanics to nuclear technology.

According to Fok, the principles of stress analysis are the same whether you’re studying nuclear reactors or dental restorations, such as crowns, implants and fillings.  “The only difference is in scale,” he says.

In layman’s terms, Fok is putting his expertise in engineering to work on developing more efficient ways to restore damaged teeth and replace missing ones, as well as getting a better understanding of how dental materials hold up under years of chewing and bacterial attack.

Since his arrival at the U, Fok has headed improvement efforts of the financial and academic standing of the MDRCBB. In the past five years he has increased and diversified revenue sources through partnerships with more industrial sponsors.

In addition to founding member 3M, current industrial partners of the center include Ormco, a manufacturer of orthodontic appliances, Mozo Grau, an international dental implant company based in Spain, as well as General Mills, which uses the center’s chewing machine to help them develop the next generation of food products.

Fok has also succeeded in winning several federal grants from the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Energy,  two of them being collaborative projects with other University and dental school departments.

When it comes to the current academic standing of the center, Fok and the program are on the international stage.  Fok is an invited lecturer at many dental schools and international meetings. He has also significantly increased the number of researchers and students to the center. Two of those are currently MinnCRest fellows.

“In terms of funding, number of students in the program, partnerships we have with other departments, and evaluative techniques,” says Fok, “we are developing quite the edge; we have some of the most advanced evaluative technology available.”

Current research activities include shape optimization of dental restorations, shrinkage strain measurement using digital image correlation, nondestructive examination of interfacial debonding using acoustic emission and micro-CT, and the development of alternative bond test for dental materials.

A very rewarding and motivating part of Fok’s work is widespread recognition he has received for work done at the University of Minnesota.

“Designing and making dental prostheses that follow engineering principles and perspectives and are being adapted by clinicians around the world is an encouraging thing,” said Fok. “It demonstrates how much engineers can contribute to healthcare.”

Under the leadership of Dr. Fok, the Minnesota Dental Research Center for Biomaterials and Biomechanics has recently been awarded a 2013 William J. Gies Award for Vision, Innovation, and Achievement for Outstanding Vision – a prestigious award from the American Dental Education Association Gies Foundation (ADEAGies).

Congratulations, Dr. Fok! #UMNProud

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